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Servicemembers, charities combine forces in hard times

Soldiers from Fort Carson walk on a path near Dorchester Park in Colorado Springs, Colo., to give supplies to homeless residents at the Marian House soup kitchen in Colorado Springs, Colo., Dec. 18, 2009. The volunteer project, organized by Fort Carson chaplains, started as a 12-person detail and grew into a volunteer project for more than 300 Soldiers. Several charities in Colorado Springs rely on assistance from military volunteers. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Don Branum)

Soldiers from Fort Carson walk on a path near Dorchester Park in Colorado Springs, Colo., to give supplies to homeless residents at the Marian House soup kitchen in Colorado Springs, Colo., Dec. 18, 2009. The volunteer project, organized by Fort Carson chaplains, started as a 12-person detail and grew into a volunteer project for more than 300 Soldiers. Several charities in Colorado Springs rely on assistance from military volunteers. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Don Branum)

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- Tents dot the landscape in the lowlands of Dorchester Park near Tejon Street and Interstate 25. They are the last refuge for groups of people who have nowhere else to go, nowhere left to turn.

With the economy and the weather conspiring to make survival even more difficult for Colorado Springs' homeless population, charities are more thankful than ever for the help they get from the city's military communities. Some of Dorchester Park's residents may stay a little warmer and enjoy a meal because a Soldier at Fort Carson or an Airman at any of the Springs' three Air Force installations chose to get involved.

One of the charities dedicated to helping the homeless is the Springs Rescue Mission, a Christian charity that sits near the intersection of Tejon Street and Las Vegas Avenue, less than a half mile from Dorchester Park.

"We serve a lot of single families and a lot of Hispanics and veterans," said Eleanor Vazquez, the Mission's volunteer coordinator. "Most people are one paycheck from being homeless or in poverty."

About 7,000 people volunteered a total of 16,000 hours in 2009 to help those in need, Mrs. Vazquez said.

"We get children from elementary schools, people who know someone who's been on the streets," said Mrs. Vazquez, who is the wife of Springs Rescue Mission CEO Rev. Joe Vazquez. "We also have some people whom we call high-impact volunteers -- these are folks who are down here regularly and work 25 to 30 hours per month."

Mrs. Vazquez said the military community plays a key role in the Mission's efforts to help the poor and homeless.

"One morning, we sent an e-mail out" requesting volunteers, she said. "A squad of volunteers came out, and they had a two-day job done in four hours. We had to call volunteers and tell them that the job was done."

The Mission will hold a "Best Christmas Ever" event in conjunction with Mr. Biggs Family Fun Center, a few miles south of the Air Force Academy, Dec. 23. Most of the volunteer slots were full as of Dec. 21, but slots were still open for family greeters and assistance, ushers and bicycle runners. The event will feature a bicycle giveaway as well as meals and a coat giveaway in conjunction with Warm Coats and Warm Hearts, One Warm Coat, Burlington Coat Factory and Good Morning America, Mrs. Vazquez said.

"It's overwhelming to see people come together when you put the call out," she said.

The volunteer opportunities won't end once Christmastime has come and gone: the Springs Rescue Mission does work throughout the year, including two large-scale bridal showers per year, a "kids' café" program during the summer and special events for Easter and Thanksgiving.

"There's always an opportunity for people to volunteer one time or on a regular basis," she said. "There's a whole host of opportunities." The Mission has volunteer slots open on evenings and weekends as well as during the day.

Another local charity is the Colorado Veterans Coalition's Crawford House. Retired Col. Jack Anthony, a researcher at the Air Force Academy's Department of Astronautics, helped organize the first "Veterans Home Run" event to support the Crawford House in 2006.

Servicemembers can also volunteer through agencies on base. A group of about 300 Soldiers from the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division at Fort Carson did just that Dec. 18. Some wore Santa hats, and others carried unit guidons as the group trekked through Dorchester Park en route to the Marian House soup kitchen.

"This started as a 12-man detail a few years back," one of the Soldiers near the front of the group said. Since it began, the procession has grown quickly to its current size.

Their mission was to donate clothing and other items to help the homeless stay warm, but they may have given the residents of Dorchester Park and other poverty-stricken families in Colorado Springs something else: a gift of hope.